The manuscript took up the whole room, useless as a book. Its size, not to say the delicacy brought on by age, made it impossible to carry around, even to pick up; instead, one had to make a pilgrimage to it like the Black Stone kissed by Muslims at the Ka’bah. The bulky corpus splayed out, a compendium thicker than any man, bound in diseased-looking mummied leather that dated from the Age of Wonders. It had pages made from the sheerest vellum, nearly transparent—yes, when light radiated behind a leaf, one could discern the world on the other side, as if washed into rainbow and resin, relieved of its harsh solidity and contours. The tiny letters, each inscribed with minute calligraphical precision, swirled into patterns that did not follow vertical and horizontal planes, sweeping into an ornate dervish, a few side-curls cresting out, then the lines looping and pooling into a flock of birds escaping in a confused mass of monstrous feathers, conjoined into a single organic being.
The paper had been mottled like a lung, whether because of the heterogeneous materials of its origin or because the layers of accumulated soot and tarnish had interwoven with the text itself, one could not be sure. The slightest breeze—in fact, even one’s own shallow breathing—made it billow with an enervated life. The paper incessantly quivered at its edges as if the pages were the tremors of some premonition.
Many scholars proposed the manuscript had been written in a long-forgotten, localized variant of proto-Semitic that shows traces of syncretic contamination by Byzantine dialects: a halfway-house language, which provided the transition from ideograms into the entirely conventionalized signs of all later forms of communication. The book would therefore most likely be the depository of a vanished culture’s sacred, political, literary, historical, legal, and erotic traditions. Other scholars argued that the manuscript was, rather, an elaborate hoax, created as a kind of tourist attraction to entice diplomats, law-students, interpreters, and religious sight-seers who traveled in caravansaries on now defunct trade routes.
Still others conjectured that the book is not written in any language at all, but is really the code of a secret sect of necromancers who had discovered the philosopher’s stone: a sect, which may still exist today in an obscure counter-society dispersed to all corners of the globe. The book, according to this legend, is simply a password. When these prophets gather in a minyan, they may give collective voice to the book’s ludic abracadabra, which opens a door, as it were, in the book, which is only a decoy. Out of this door, the true book of spells would appear.
The myths and commentary surrounding the book have now mostly occluded interest in The Book itself, and these have been compiled in a volume that is as heavy and fragile as the ancient text.
Will Cordeiro has previously worked as a NYC Teaching Fellow, a staff writer at the theater magazine offoffonline, and the Artist-in-Residence at Risley Residential College. He has an MFA in poetry from Cornell, where he is currently a Ph.D. candidate studying 18th century British literature. His work has been published in journals such as Brooklyn Review, lafovea, Baltimore Review, Dirt, Jacket, L.E.S. Review, and Paradigm, and is forthcoming in Sentence, Barely South Review, and Word for/Word.